WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s attempt to overthrow American democracy and the resulting criminal investigations that appear be to closing in on him and his inner circle have done little to cool the ardor of Republicans falling over one another to win the former president’s seal of approval.
GOP candidates for the House, Senate, governorships, statewide offices and even state legislatures are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into his cash registers as they seek his endorsement in coming elections — notwithstanding his failed attempt to remain in power despite losing his own.
“Don’t we all miss him, folks? I know I do,” said Ted Budd, who received Trump’s blessing over several others in the North Carolina Republican Senate primary, at a recent rally. “I am proud to have President Trump’s endorsement in this race!”
Budd’s campaign, which has already spent $26,652 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, did not respond to a HuffPost query about why he would want the help of someone who tried to suspend or even end the constitutional republic.
GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, though, said the reason candidates still want that endorsement is quite simple: “He has an enduring base of supporters within the GOP who won’t be bowed.”
“Trump is still popular with 90% of Republican voters,” added a GOP consultant for a 2022 congressional candidate who does not accept Trump’s claims of a stolen election but wants an endorsement anyway. “His endorsement is useful in winning those voters,” the consultant said on condition of anonymity.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University who has been sounding the alarm about Trump’s autocratic tendencies for years, has an alternate explanation.
“The GOP’s continuing anxiety to curry favor from Trump testifies to its evolution into a lawless party. It has absorbed Trump’s authoritarian values and methods, meaning anything is legitimate if it is in the service of gaining and maintaining power,” she said.
Trump repeatedly lied about the 2020 presidential election, claiming it had been “stolen” from him, and even considered deploying the U.S. military to help him remain in office. Eventually, he tried to coerce his own vice president, using an angry mob of his supporters as leverage, into invalidating the results in several states that Democrat Joe Biden had won, and simply declaring Trump the winner.
Those near constant false claims, which began in the wee hours of election night and continue to this day, fueled the anger among his followers that Trump unleashed on Jan. 6, 2021, when he told a rally audience near the White House to march on the Capitol to persuade then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers to overturn the election.
The ensuing violence left four Trump supporters and one police officer dead. Another 140 officers were injured, and four more took their own lives in the coming days and weeks.
Trump’s actions leading up to and on that day have triggered multiple criminal probes, including in Georgia, where he tried to coerce state officials into reversing Biden’s win there, as well as in Washington, where his campaign worked to create fake slates of “Trump electors” from several states and then tried to obstruct the vote certification in Congress on Jan. 6 itself.
In spite of all this, Republican candidates continue to beg for Trump’s approval, frequently attacking one another for not being sufficiently loyal to him.
Trump has already given his “total and complete” endorsement to 133 GOP candidates, from would-be governors and senators down to the Republican hopefuls for a local judgeship and district attorney’s race in Tarrant County, Texas. Just recently, he chose heart surgeon and television celebrity Mehmet Oz over hedge fund CEO David McCormick in the Pennsylvania Senate primary. Both men had recently made their way to Mar-a-Lago, where Trump now winters and bases his political committees, to seek his favor. Trump last weekend went with Oz.
On Friday, he endorsed venture capitalist and former critic J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate race, choosing him from among a handful of candidates who all professed their loyalty to him.
“Personal fortunes over patriotism,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida. “They’re willing to risk the integrity of the republic for their own electoral gain.”
Rory Cooper, once a top aide to former House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said that most House districts today are drawn so that the primary election effectively determines the winner. Republican candidates know they can please the Trump-loving primary voters without suffering any consequences in the November general election.
“Sadly, that means that getting Trump to endorse your candidacy gives you access to grassroots enthusiasm and dollars,” Cooper said. “I do think candidates can win without it, and many will even in highly contested races as we’ve seen. But it’s the easy button in many very red districts as he remains quite popular with the type of voter who doesn’t miss a primary.”
One former senior official in the Trump campaign said that as long as Republican voters don’t care about what Trump did on Jan. 6, neither will Republican candidates. “The problem is in America, committing a crime doesn’t make you a villain,” he said on condition of anonymity.
The unending fealty to Trump, meanwhile, has become a profit center for both Trump and his former associates in his campaign and White House.
From the time he left office through the end of March, Trump had taken in $617,451 at Mar-a-Lago, just from federal candidates, according to a HuffPost analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
Josh Mandel, an Ohio Senate candidate passed over for an endorsement, spent $31,626 there; Missouri Rep. Billy Long, running for the Senate in that state, spent $28,633; and Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who had his “total and complete endorsement” pulled after he lagged in the polls, spent $25,779. Herschel Walker, whom Trump recruited to run for Senate in Georgia, by himself spent $135,315.
Candidates running for state office also generate money for Trump’s personal pocketbook. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s second press secretary who is now running for governor of Arkansas, for example, spent $59,500 at Mar-a-Lago, $1,094 at Trump’s hotel in Washington, and another $4,103 at his hotel in Chicago, according to Arkansas campaign finance records.
Kari Lake, a favorite of Trump because of her enthusiastic embrace of his election lies as she runs for governor of Arizona, has so far spent $52,432 at Mar-a-Lago and $3,355 at his golf course across the Intracoastal in West Palm Beach, according to campaign finance records in that state.
All of those properties are owned by Trump’s family business, the profits from which all flow directly to Trump, and are generally significantly more expensive than comparable nearby venues.
Trump’s former aides are similarly cashing in. Top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, chief immigration aide Stephen Miller, and former campaign official and current Republican National Committee member David Bossie are all currently working for clients who want Trump’s endorsement.
A consulting firm founded by top campaign officials Justin Clark and Bill Stepien, meanwhile, has already collected $931,400 from a dozen pro-Trump congressional candidates and another $200,609 from two of Trump’s own committees, according to FEC records.
Jolly said he worries that Trump’s hardcore fan base will continue its adoration of Trump even if the investigations into his post-election actions result in criminal prosecutions — and that will lead Republican candidates and office holders to continue supporting him as well.
“It will be a defining issue for our politics and culture for a generation. The ability to see a healed, unified nation grows dimmer,” he said, but added that not prosecuting Trump to avoid such division could be even worse. “Conversely, deciding not to pursue charges lays a narrative that we have abandoned our fundamental principles of law, order, and justice. The ability to speak with confidence to our national values grows quieter.”